General Litigation

Appellate Court Awards Russian Centerpiece to Antique Dealer

Last week, a NY Appellate Court resolved litigation over an antique monumental centerpiece dating back to the time of Czar Nicholas I in favor of an antique dealer (represented by yours truly) who had purchased the piece from a collector. In Malekan v. Sakai Antiques NY’s First Department upheld as a valid contract a handwritten note written in Farsi that the parties executed at the time of the transfer of the piece. The piece, which consisted of 8 large ceramic vases each over four feet tall connected by an ornate wooden base, had been sold to the dealer for $280,000.00 by the seller who had the piece in storage in his garage for many years. The parties put the deal in writing in Farsi, their native language. The agreement never specifically said that it was for the sale of the piece, just that it represented the terms “of the deal over the Russian piece.”

After the dealer picked it up from the seller, he sent it to be restored by an experienced restorer. When the restorer began his work, he discovered the mark of Csar Nicholas I on the inside of the vases; he was then able to trace that the piece had been created for the Csar to be given as a gift to his niece, who was marrying the Prince of Denmark. The dealer then invested approximately $150,000 to restore the piece and have it placed in the famous Sotheby’s Russian Art Auction; the restoration took approximately two years. The piece was to be auctioned with a $2 Million reserve price as the highlight of the sale. On the evening before the auction, however, the seller, seeing his former property in the Sotheby’s catalog, faxed an affidavit to Sotheby’s declaring that the dealer had stolen the piece from his basement in a ruse and that the dealer had told him it was sold to the Russian mafia. Of course, the piece failed to sell and the litigation ensued in NY County.

Judge O.Peter Sherwood granted summary judgment to my client and declared him the sole and rightful owner of the piece finding that it was clear that the seller intended to sell the piece and that it rose in value only because of the efforts of the dealer after the sale had been consummated. Judge Sherwood said that the seller’s waiting two years without filing suit or objecting over the dealer’s possession of the piece was also fatal to his claim. The Appellate Court agreed in a unanimous decision, stating that the seller could not now dispute the terms of the written agreement which was clear enough to prove an intent to transfer the piece.

The case is a cautionary tale for folks who engage in hand-shake transactions or ones with little paperwork. While my client ended up winning in the end, if he had a plainer and clearer sale document, the case wold have ended much sooner – instead he had to endure four years of litigation and expense. From the seller’s perspective, the case also shows that if you have an objection to a transaction, you need to voice it and not sit on your hands, even if you are still within the statute of limitation. The court threw the case out in part because of the lack of objection for two years, even though the seller had six years to sue for fraud or breach of contract. Consult with a lawyer well-versed in this area when getting involved in this kind of transaction to make sure the documents are in order and that they clearly reflect the intentions of the parties.

Here is the link to Sotheby’s catalog showing the piece:

Sotheby’s Catalog

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